After hearing numerous Highly Sensitive Social Workers express a desire to feel more grounded and less overwhelmed throughout the workday, I'm revealing the exact ways I tend to my nervous system to stay grounded at work. By the end of this blog post, you'll have specific skills you can practice to reduce overstimulation and feel grounded throughout your workday.
As a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), I’ve struggled with feeling on edge and overwhelmed throughout my career as a Social Worker. Before learning I was an HSP, these feelings were often coupled with shame and confusion as I wondered WHY I was feeling this way.
Many of you have expressed this exact same struggle, so I’ve decided to share with you what has helped me stay grounded during a busy workday. Over the years, I’ve developed effective grounding skills that allow me to respond to overstimulation in a way that tends to my nervous system with care and kindness AND improves my productivity at work.
First, let’s review why Sensitive Social Workers may struggle more than others to feel grounded.
Overstimulation & Overarousal
“HSPs are particularly at risk of chronic overarousal and burnout due to the way their brains deeply process information.”
One of the most challenging things about being an HSP is that we’re more prone to overstimulation and overarousal.
In her book, Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron states “Stimulation becomes overarousing when fatigue sets in. Fatigue arises because the processing of stimulation requires nervous system arousal and attention”. As HSPs are constantly picking up on and deeply processing small details in their environment, they're more likely to become overstimulated than non-HSPs.
The field of Social Work is full of stimulation, with unending demands and expectations, and a strong emotional component of social justice and caring for others. While this can contribute to burnout for any Social Worker, HSPs are particularly at risk of chronic overarousal and burnout due to the way their brains deeply process information.
Overarousal is a physiological nervous system response that can look or feel like anxiety, stress, frustration, collapse, exhaustion, or shut down. It’s generally a very uncomfortable feeling and it can significantly impact performance. In other words, when you’re overaroused, you don’t complete tasks as efficiently or effectively as when you’re feeling settled, calm, and grounded.
So, what can you do to feel more grounded?
Tend to Your Nervous System
When you’re overaroused, your nervous system’s stress response is activated. While this is a natural part of the human condition, our bodies aren't meant to stay in a state of overarousal for too long.
After the stress response is triggered, we’re meant to return to the rest and relaxation response. We essentially need to reassure ourselves that it is safe to be in our bodies again. Easier said than done right?
When your nervous system is activated, simply telling yourself to “relax” is not effective. You need to reassure your nervous system in a language it understands. One of the ways we can communicate this is through grounding exercises.
What is Grounding?
“Grounding anchors you to the present and to reality, which gives your processing mind a break.”
When I talk about being “grounded” I’m not referring to an innate trait that you either have or don't have. Grounding is a skill that you can learn and practice.
Grounding skills focus your attention on the present moment. While mindfulness is the practice of paying attention without judgment to whatever is happening internally, grounding focuses on the here and now with the intention of distancing yourself from emotional or physical pain. Grounding anchors you to the present and to reality, which gives your processing mind a break.
In her book, Seeking Safety, Dr. Lisa Najavits outlines 3 main types of grounding:
Physical Grounding involves focusing on your senses and physical sensations. Examples include running cold water over your hands, squeezing your chair as hard as you can, carrying a grounding object, holding it, and noticing how it feels, its weight, etc.
Mental Grounding involves focusing the mind on a specific task. Examples include describing your environment in detail, counting the virtual lines you can see in a room, or counting backward from ten.
Soothing Grounding includes anything in the present moment that offers a sense of comfort. Examples of soothing grounding include noticing your favourite colour around you, snuggling into your favourite blanket and paying close attention to the texture, or imaging all the details of a safe or healing place.
Many grounding exercises involve a combination of these 3 types.
Finding What Works for You
Finding grounding strategies that are effective for you will be personal. It can be helpful to try out a few and see which ones resonate the most.
It may also take some practice before you feel the benefits. The more familiar something is, the more soothing it is to your nervous system. You may wish to practice at home when you're not overstimulated so that the tools are easier to draw on when you're feeling overwhelmed at work.
Your mind will likely wander and pull you towards your worries or regrets when you try grounding for the first time. Know that this is a normal part of the process. The important thing is that you gently bring your attention back to the grounding exercise each time you notice this happening. The more you practice, the easier this will become.
Grounding doesn't need to be complicated. Some grounding strategies are quite simple. As long as you're paying attention to the present moment, you’re practicing grounding. It may be as simple as noticing the sensation of the chair underneath you or counting backward from ten.
"You can enhance the effectiveness of grounding practices by practicing them with intention. Really focus on WHY you're grounding.”
Most likely, you're already drawn to things and activities that help soothe and calm your nervous system. The following journal prompts will help you figure out what those things are.
Grounding Journal Prompts:
Take a moment to write down your answers to the following questions:
· When was the last time you felt grounded, centered, or anchored?
· In which places do you feel the calmest?
· Which activities give you a sense of ease or steadiness?
· What scents, textures, sounds, visuals, and tastes feel soothing or grounding to you?
· How can you access some of these resources during your workday?
The answers to these questions will give you hints about how you're already practicing grounding and what things feel particularly grounding for you.
You can enhance the effectiveness of these practices by practicing them with intention. Really focus on WHY you're grounding. Remind yourself that each time you take a few moments to be in the present moment, you're offering yourself a gesture of care.
It can be helpful to combine those things you already find grounding with some tried-and-true grounding strategies that have been studied and shown to be helpful for many people.
I know you’re busy, and adding another thing to your to-do list might be the last thing you want to do, but taking even 5 intentional minutes to practice grounding can actually make it easier to tackle everything you have on your plate. In the long term, grounding daily can help you prevent burnout and increase your effectiveness at work.
Here are some of my favourite grounding exercises to practice at work:
5,4,3,2,1, Here and Now Grounding Exercise
· Begin by noticing 5 things that you can see and stating to yourself “I see…” (ex. I see a blue chair sitting under the window).
· Be descriptive and objective, without adding judgments or assumptions to what you observe.
· Next notice 5 things that you can hear, stating “I hear…” with each sound you notice. (ex. I hear a car horn honking).
· Then notice 5 things that you can sense or feel stating “I feel…” (ex. I feel the touch of my clothes on my skin).
· Repeat and while counting down: noticing 4 things you can see, hear, and sense, then 3 of each, until you reach 1 of each.
This grounding exercise is both mental and physical as it involves counting and paying attention to your senses. By focusing your mind on your immediate environment for an extended period you give yourself a break from mentally processing all you've absorbed from the day, which allows your nervous system to return to a calmer state.
Give it a try! Notice how you feel beforehand, and then check in with how you feel afterward.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a state of fear or panic your breathing becomes shallow? This is a natural part of the stress response (along with a racing heart, tense muscles, clammy hands, and feeling flushed).
Our bodies associate shallow breathing (only breathing into your chest) with stress, and breathing deeply into the belly with safety. Focusing your attention on your breathing and then slowing down and deepening your breathing can do wonders for your nervous system.
You might try counting your breaths or adding a soothing phrase on the inhale and on the exhale.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
· Begin by squeezing your hands into fists and holding for a few seconds.
· Then release.
· Gradually move through your whole body, tensing each muscle and then releasing.
One physiological response to overarousal and stress is muscle tension. In turn, tense muscles indicate stress to the body. (You can see the cycle this creates and how it might get us stuck in the stress response).
AND each time you actively release a muscle, you signal to your nervous system that it’s safe to rest, safe to relax.
If you find it hard to focus on this on your own, you can find guided Progressive Muscle Relaxation sequences on YouTube and most meditation apps (my favourite is Insight Timer).
Have you ever seen a dog become startled? Her whole body becomes rigid and alert, her hackles come up, and she’s ready to run or fight? And then, when she realizes it was just the garbage can knocked over by the wind, she shakes her body, her hackles come down, her muscles relax, she is ready to carry on happily sniffing the ground.
By shaking, the dog releases energy in her body associated with the stress response and signals to her nervous system to return to the rest and relax response.
Humans can shake it off too! While it might feel silly, you can communicate to your body that it's safe to rest and relax by shaking each part of your body. You’ll likely want to find a private space to practice this (or maybe your colleagues or clients could benefit from shaking it out too!).
Don’t want to feel silly trying this alone? Body shake is one of the movement practices I've included in Social Worker Refresh. Sign up and practice it with me!
"By paying attention to your internal state and tending to your nervous system with care, you’ll be able to return to a sense of inner calm when you notice you’re becoming overstimulated.”
I encourage you to be patient and kind with yourself if grounding is new for you. All new things feel uncomfortable at first!
Tending to overstimulation as it arises is an act of self-compassion. It can also help reduce the risk of burnout and allow you to show up more fully for your clients.
When you’re getting started for the first time, it can be helpful to have someone guide you through these practices until they become more familiar.
I’ve sprinkled grounding exercises throughout Social Worker Refresh because I know how important it is for Social Workers to be able to tend to their nervous systems. Social Worker Refresh is an excellent option if you want to start practicing grounding with support and guidance.
By paying attention to your internal state and tending to your nervous system with care, you’ll be able to return to a sense of inner calm when you notice you’re becoming overstimulated.